The Potato Eaters
Painting, Oil on Canvas on panel
Nuenen, The Netherlands: April, 1885
All book hounds must know the humdrum boredom of looking over rows of books in bazaars, used bookshops and thrift stores and not finding what they are looking for, even if they don’t know what it is that they are looking for; it is the uneventful norm. They must also know the immediate shock of recognition – accompanied by an intake of breath and a raised heartbeat – when they come across a book that does interest them – it makes all the futile searching worthwhile and certainly gives you something to look forward to as you settle into your latest acquisition, satiated for the time being.
I experienced this a few weeks ago when my eyes fell upon the title Dear Theo, The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh. I had not thought of Van Gogh as being a writer and indeed his ‘autobiography’ turned out to be a distillation of his letters to his brother Theo. They apparently ran to a few thousand pages and Irving and Jean Stone, who edited this book, have done a fine job of weaving excerpts from his letters into an autobiographical tale that flows coherently throughout his career, from his beginnings in Holland and England (at which time he was considering a career as a preacher, like his father and grandfather) through his hesitant decision to become an artist and finally to the period when he was painting his masterpieces in the south of France. This only covers a period of 20 years for, as we all know, Vincent’s career was a short one.
It soon becomes apparent that he would never have had any success as an artist at all had it not been for his brother Theo who supplied him with a regular allowance in order to support him in the daily necessities of life as well as the, not insubstantial, costs for an artist’s materials – paints and canvases, brushes and frames, models and a place to lay his head.
It is painful to read his words lamenting his poverty and that his funds have run out and how he must wait for the next instalment before continuing his work; he would often spend the last of it on paints or canvas and neglect his health by forgoing food so that he could continue to pursue his work. He was determined and logical in this pursuit – he continued for a long time to draw while others urged him to pass on to painting – he was insistent that he would train his “draughtsman’s fist” to draw on its own, as if by a second nature, before he would graduate to paint when he would “draw with the brush”. He would not attempt to paint with oils until he had served a self-appointed apprenticeship learning to paint with watercolours.
Other artists and experienced teachers were sometimes leery of both him and his style – not so much I think, as reputed, by his personality but perhaps by his facility, which seemed, for Vincent, to come easily, and was only hard-won by them – a resentful jealousy to which they could not always admit in light of his drawings. Vincent longed to learn at the feet of an accomplished artist but had little luck in this respect; perhaps for the better as in doing for himself he created for himself a style and interpretation that we still recognize today as his alone. He felt that he was unfairly criticized for working too quickly and advised Theo in one of his letters that if someone accused him of that he should suggest that perhaps he had looked at the picture too quickly.
Irving Stone writes in his short preface to the book that he feels that Vincent was “as great a writer and philosopher as he was a painter” and if that seems somewhat exaggerated it is perhaps not – and, if so, only because Vincent became such an artistic giant with his brush.
If you doubt it, consider this selection from his musings:
It certainly is a strange phenomenon that all the artists, poets, musicians, painters are unfortunate in material things – the happy ones as well. Guy de Maupassant is a fresh proof of it. That brings up the eternal question: is the whole of life visible to us, or isn’t it rather that this side of death we see one hemisphere only?
Painters – to take them only – dead and buried, speak to the next generation or to several succeeding generations in their work. Is that all, or is there more besides? In a painter’s life death is not perhaps the hardest thing there is.
For my own part, I declare I know nothing whatever about it; but to look at the stars always makes me dream as simply as I dream over the black dots of a map representing towns and villages. Why, I ask myself, should the shining dots of the sky not be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? If we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. One thing undoubtedly true in this reasoning is this: that while we are alive we cannot get to a star, any more than when we are dead we can take the train. So it seems to me possible that cholera, gravel, phthisis, and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion, just as steamboats, omnibuses, and railways are the terrestrial means. To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.
I feel more and more that we must not judge God on the basis of this world; it’s a study that didn’t come off. What can you do, in a study that has gone wrong, if you are fond of the artist? You do not find much to criticize; you hold your tongue. But you have a right to ask for something better. It is only a master who can make such a muddle, and perhaps that is the best consolation we have out of it, since then we have a right to hope that we’ll see the same creative hand get even with itself. And this life of ours, so much criticized, and for such good and even exalted reasons – we must not take it for anything but what it is, and go on hoping that in some other life we’ll see a better thing than this.
Reading this book (I’m almost finished) has been an inspiration for me and I think that it would be so for most people; artists in particular would benefit from Vincent’s thoughts on the technical aspects of drawing and painting – composition, form, colour etc. The rest of us would benefit from the insight that we receive into Vincent’s mind through his eloquent reflections on life and art. Everyone has heard of Vincent Van Gogh but few of us have any familiarity with the man himself. This book is a delightful introduction to the man who’s art has fascinated for over a century and an enlightening glimpse into the mind of a genius.
Following is an excerpt from Vincent’s story, around the end of 1883, when he had returned from a few years of drawing and painting on the expansive dunes of Drenthe, Holland, somewhat dispirited, to live with his parents so that he could continue his painting. In it he discusses with Theo a new canvas that he is working on – ‘The Potato Eaters’ – later to become an icon in the world of art. We’ll follow that up in the next post with a later excerpt from his time in Arles, in the south of France (as far as I have gotten in the book) and his visit by Gauguin. Finally we will follow with a post about an online resource for the letters of Vincent Van Gogh that can make them accessible, in their entirety and with much additional material to anyone with an internet connection; I’ve seldom been more impressed with an online presentation.
Vincent’s artwork in these posts comes from Van Gogh Gallery, a wonderful site with a good representation of his work. From the home page, upper left under The Works, click on one of Paintings, Drawings, Watercolors or Sketches – on the page that opens, click on Click here for the Catalog of Van Gogh … to be taken to a page of all the works of that type laid out in chronological order. Images are rendered 750px × 563px.